College football Week 14 roundup

Well, that’s it.

The 2022 college football season — save for the bowls and the playoffs — is over, and they have left the College Football Playoff Committee with possibly the toughest set of decisions they have ever had to make. Now that the season is over, rankings don’t matter: all that’s left is to project who will make the playoffs, and who will make the New Year’s Six bowls.

In case you haven’t been following, the last two weeks have taken us from simplicity to sheer chaos in the college football world. On the last weekend of the regular season, Michigan beat Ohio State, while #7 Louisiana State, #8 Clemson, and #10 Oregon all lost. #1 Georgia, #2 Michigan, #4 USC, #5 TCU, #6 Penn State, and #9 Alabama were the only top ten teams to win. This week, chaos multiplied, with favorites losing championship games and throwing the playoff seedings into not just doubt, but disarray.

On Friday, one-loss USC — poised for the program’s first playoff berth ever — got blown out by 9-3 Utah, losing a 47-24 humiliation in the Pac-12 championship game, sticking them with their second loss and knocking them out of the top four. Then, to start the championship slate Saturday, undefeated TCU and 9-3 Kansas State gave us a terrific back-and-forth Big 12 title game, going to overtime tied at 28. TCU appeared to be on the doorstep of scoring, but a brilliant defensive stand — with second-down, third-down, and fourth-down stops on the goal line — kept TCU off the board. On their ensuing possession, Kansas State kicked a field goal to win, 31-28, and crush TCU’s hopes of an undefeated season.

In the SEC Championship, Georgia secured their playoff berth while doing what they were supposed to and blew LSU out of the building in a bizarre game that featured a blocked LSU field goal returned for a Georgia touchdown (Louisiana State appeared to forget that the ball was in play) and a Bulldogs interception off of the helmet of LSU receiver Jack Bech. Michigan took care of business against four-loss Purdue in the Big Ten Championship, punching their ticket as well. Finally, Clemson did their duty against Wake Forest, securing the ACC title with an 11-2 record.

If you didn’t watch, this is where things stand. If you’re confused, you’re right. And if you can’t find four teams in this motley collection that look like playoff teams, well, you’re right about that too. So who’s in, and who’s out?

There are no rules to who makes the college football playoffs, but we have some patterns that come as close to rules as you can get. The strongest is that you cannot lose twice and make the playoff. In the eight years of the playoffs so far, 32 teams have qualified for the tournament. Of the 32, 12 were undefeated and 20 had lost once. Never has a team with two losses made the playoff. In 2016, this rule was more or less penciled into granite when two-loss Penn State, who won the Big Ten championship, was left out of the playoff at the expense of the one-loss Ohio State Buckeyes, who had lost to the Nittany Lions during the regular season. Ever since, teams have been clear. Lose once, you’re looking good. Lose twice, and you’re done.

The second golden rule is that at least three conference champions are in the playoff. This has always been the case, and ever since the beginning of the playoff system, three conference champs have made their way into the tournament. In fact, it’s usually four — just twice in a full season (Ohio State in 2016 and Georgia in 2021) has a team which failed to win their conference qualified for the playoffs.

So using these rules, what’s the playoff looking like? Georgia, the #1 seed, has a 13-0 record and the SEC championship. They’re in. Michigan, the #2 seed, is 13-0 and topped the Big Ten. There remain two spots to be filled, and filling them will be difficult.

The three remaining conference champions are Utah (Pac-12, 10-3), Kansas State (Big 12, 10-3), and Clemson (ACC, 11-2). This is uncharted territory, because the only time before 2022 where three Power Five conference champions were 11-2 or worse (2021), Cincinnati, the American Athletic Conference champions, were 13-0 and ready to pick up that fourth spot. Yet this year, we have no Cincinnati, and under the two-loss rule, none of the conference champions can be chosen. So who’s next?

The most obvious candidate is Ohio State, who romped through their schedule with relative ease before coming up against a wall of Wolverines in their final game, finishing 11-1. All things considered, Ohio State should take the third playoff spot. Now, we know a rule must be broken for the fourth. We must either take a second non-champion — something the committee has never done — or one of the two- or three-loss champions; this spot will most likely be filed by Clemson, the only one with just two losses.

Of the non-champions, TCU has the best case. They finished 12-1 in the Big 12, which would normally be enough. However, the Big 12 is terrible this year, and TCU has never looked dominant. Only four of their regular-season opponents had a winning record, and they won those three games by a combined seventeen points. And, of course, one of those opponents was Kansas State, who put paid to the Horned Frogs’ undefeated season this weekend. TCU doesn’t look like a team ready to compete — but then, who does?

Once we’ve taken out TCU, there are no more Power Five teams with only one loss. That’s it. The only other Power Five two-loss teams are USC (Pac-12), Clemson (ACC), Penn State (Big Ten), and Alabama and Tennessee (SEC). Penn State can be eliminated first, as Ohio State is in, and the committee won’t want to put three Big Ten teams in the playoff. (They also lack any quality wins on their resumé, despite having the best two losses in college football.) USC is next. They’ve played their share of close games, and they’ve lost to Utah twice now (once in the regular season and once in the conference championship). If USC were to be put in, Utah would be howling — and rightly so.

This leaves Clemson, Alabama, and Tennessee. Tennessee beat Alabama, but has a loss to Georgia and, more importantly, a terrible loss to South Carolina where the Volunteers allowed 63 points to a mid-level Gamecocks squad. Clemson, too, lost to South Carolina and took a three-touchdown drubbing from Notre Dame earlier in the season.

That leaves us with Alabama, who have lost two games and didn’t look good doing it, but lost them by a combined total of four points. Ultimately, then, the question that the committee will ask themselves is: What’s more impressive — TCU, beating a lackluster slate and losing to three-loss Kansas State in the championship, whose inclusion would mean three conferences are represented? Or Alabama, beating six SEC teams and losing only to two-loss Tennessee and three-loss LSU, which would make the playoff a two-conference affair?

It’s impossible to know what the committee will decide, but my money is on the Crimson Tide. If they manage to claw back from the dead, it will be a moment to remember. However, if they do win the playoff berth, that brings up a substantial question for the committee. Georgia is #1, locked in; Michigan, at #2, is also locked in. If Ohio State and Alabama are the other two teams, there’s no reasonable way to place Alabama ahead of Ohio State, so Ohio State would have to be #3, and Alabama at #4.

For myself, I hope they do this. Thanks to the bracket structure, the #1 Georgia Bulldogs would play Alabama, and Michigan would go up against Ohio State, giving us a Big Ten vs Big Ten semifinal, an SEC vs SEC semifinal, and a guaranteed Big Ten vs SEC final. The two conferences which lay claim to being the superconferences of the future would face off in the title game, making for an epic championship game.

Based on these playoff predictions, I’ve outlined my New Year’s Six bowl predictions below:

Peach Bowl: Georgia vs. Alabama
Fiesta Bowl: Michigan vs. Ohio State
Rose Bowl: Penn State vs. Utah
Sugar Bowl: Tennessee vs. Kansas State
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Louisiana State
Cotton Bowl: TCU vs. Tulane

Bowls start in a few weeks, and the ones that count kick off on New Year's Eve. That'll be it from me until January, but I hope you've enjoyed following along this whirlwind of a season. In the meantime, the committee announces their final choices on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Happy watching, good luck on your finals, and enjoy your break — see you in 2023!